Damaged Goods, Trauma, & Positive Addictions
“Everybody's damaged by something.” ― Emma Donoghue
Once upon a time, an adorable lad named Bobby felt extremely fucking lonely, so he did what all his lonely comrades were doing and downloaded Tinder. Bobby quickly became an addict, spending every waking moment swiping right/left/right/right/right/left/right/right/right/right.
Turns out Bobby needed some positive affirmation, sans any form of commitment. Turns out Bobby likes to spend inordinate amounts of time typing meaningless jabber into tiny boxes on a tiny screen that fits oh-so-perfectly in his tiny back pocket next to his tiny bum-hole. Turns out Bobby’s not into anal stuff. Turns out, Bobby is deeply damaged. But so am I, and so are you.
As Emma Donoghue succinctly puts it, “Everybody’s damaged by something.” If you’ve ever bought a bunch of perfect, yellow bananas, only to have the check-out clerk shove them beneath a pile of canned beans in your environmentally-friendly reusable shopping bag, you know how easy it is for produce to bruise. If you’ve ever been bullied, deceived, cheated, degraded, or straight up not felt “good enough,” you know how easily humans can bruise, too. What a lovely metaphor I just created between bananas and humans. You’re welcome.
People who are damaged goods are, “regarded as inadequate or impaired in some way.” A long time ago, Helen Hayes said that, “The expert in anything was once a beginner,” a quote that is routinely enlarged, laminated, and tacked to the wall of elementary school classrooms across the continental United States. How difficult is it to truly be an expert in any one thing? Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in a specific field. Ten thousand hours is nearly 417 days, in case you were wondering, which happens to be a long time to intentionally, intensely practice a skill. But even if you are an expert in micro-biology or heart transplants or golf, you’re undeniably skillfully inadequate in some other realm. And even if you have the most loving, supportive parents in the world, the nicest friends and most attentive partner, you’re still emotionally impaired in some way because life is messy. Humans are imperfect and emotional and nuanced. Life is complex; there will be bruises, and that’s okay.
Back when I was relatively religious, I experienced a great deal of discourse around the idea of damaged goods. Have some sin in your past? Hurt some people? Break the law or cheat on your wife? “You are a damaged good, but that’s who we’re here for,” I learned. “You are forgiven in the name of the father son and holy spirit, now go into the world and be better.” Or, as Melania Trump would have it, “Be Best.” I’m not downplaying this aspect of Christianity—it’s a beautiful sentiment that imperfect humans can be perfectly loved. However, it is a flawed belief that we must turn to something outside of ourselves for complete, whole, unconditional acceptance.
People turn to all sorts of things for love, comfort, or simply to feel better. Our friend Bobby turned to Tinder, along with about 50 million other people. Similarly, over 12% of Americans meet the criteria for alcoholism, over 6% are addicted to some type of drug, and somewhere between 3-6% of Americans are addicted to sex.
Addictions seem damaging correct? Maybe, but maybe not. William Glasser coined the term “positive addiction” in 1976 in a book aptly entitled “Positive Addiction.” He claims that positive addictions “strengthen us and make our lives more satisfying.” They also enable us to “live with more confidence, more creativity, more happiness, and usually in much better health.” Glasser defined a set of criteria for a positive addiction, my favorite of which is, “The activity must have the quality that you can do it without criticizing yourself. If you can’t accept yourself during this time the activity will not be addicting." A negative attitude precludes a positive addiction.
I recently wrote a blog about the idea of moderation, and like many things in life, attitude is a major underlying factor in the world of positive addictions. If you need something—a drug, a food, an exercise—you are more apt to form an unhealthy addiction to that thing. If you choose to undertake an activity for pleasure, or if you believe an activity enhances your life in some way, chances are the activity will not spiral into an unhealthy addiction. Someone who smokes marijuana for recreational use is a lot different than someone who is addicted to heroin or opioids. See the difference?
Someone who runs for pleasure, or to reach an athletic goal is a lot different than someone who punishes their body to offset eating too much, or to conquer an emotional/physical/psychological demon. Someone who has a glass of wine with dinner or drinks socially with friends is different than someone who drinks a bottle of wine every night or sneaks a flask of whiskey into the office. Someone who keeps a clean house is a lot different than someone who cleans uncontrollably or manically, to maintain a fleeting sense of order or control.
There is also a link between emotional trauma and unhealthy addictive behavior. In a study entitled Adverse Childhood Experiences conducted with 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients, researchers found that various stress-inducing experiences during childhood are linked to substance abuse and impulse control disorders. Nearly two thirds of adults who experience negative addictions also experienced childhood trauma—anything from neglect, the loss of a parent, witnessing or being physically abused, or having a family member who suffers from a mental illness.
Trauma does not inevitably lead to addictions, just as addictions are not inevitably wrong or harmful or lifelong. If we are all damaged, it is a senseless exercise to measure one pain against another. There is something deeply mindful and grounding in the realization that you don't need to compare your pain to someone else's. That you are deserving of love and can become fully capable of loving yourself despite any damage or trauma; despite anything you’ve done or said or become.
I know you may be wondering: what happened to Bobby? I’d like to think he found a nice Tinder match, went on some stellar dates, and rode off into the sunset on the back of a bronco named James. But it’s entirely likely that he is still swiping right/left/right/right/right/left/right/right/right, looking for some cheap affirmation and hoping to get laid, not realizing that he’d be more than okay if he just put his phone away, took his pug to the dog park, and made some nice spinach gnocchi. It’ll all be okay, I promise.
P.S. If you know someone struggling with an addiction, contact the Addiction and Alcohol Hotline at 844-244-3171, find a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or seek help from a trusted friend, physician, or family member. If you are the parent or partner of someone suffering from an addiction, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse or call their hotline at 1-877-643-2644. For a comprehensive list of Narcotics Anonymous meetings, go HERE.